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SimCity Hands-on: Instantly playable, mystifyingly deep

Don your hard hats for Maxis' PC-conquering city-builder

At its heart, SimCity is a tribute in motion to the chaotic complexity of urban sprawls, a series of interconnecting cogs and gears intricately wound and synchronised, and it is to developers Maxis' credit that this revelatory successor to the now decade-old SimCity 4 is also wonderfully simple.

A masterful series of checks and balances sit beneath desktop-wallpaper-worthy tilt-shift visuals and Instagram-inspired colour filters - aesthetics powered by a gorgeous new engine called GlassBox - and these prevent SimCity collapsing under its own deceptive heft.

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It's a precarious plate-spin across three sectors: industrial, commercial and residential. The first makes products, the second sells them, the third buys them. All three coexist to generate happiness key for expansion. Your role in all this, ranging from urban planner to police chief to repair man to humanitarian, would confer dizzying responsibility if not for an almost bleached-clean execution.


It all starts with a land slab. You might choose an atoll fit for two cities, a forest-matted mountain with several, or a great plain capable of supporting up to 16. Think of regions as online lobbies. Set to private and, pending a necessary connection to EA's Origin, you can play solo; set to public, other players might well become neighbours. Don't worry about Civilization-style hostile takeovers - about the worse that can happen is second-hand pollution and a few boarder-hopping crooks. Instead, imagine the benefits.

The multi-city mechanic hinges on resource acquisition. Claim oil-rich land and it's worth excavating with wells; find a rich vein of coal and set up mines; place water towers in fertile corners. Regions never bare a full set of oil, coal, water, ore and wind together, so after establishing a truck depot, ship yard or airport, you can trade missing necessities with neighbours. Other cities help rather than hinder.

With your region sorted, it's onto basic living needs - water, power, waste disposal and sewage. Placement matters (lay a sewage pipes near suburbs and watch happiness plummet), and so does amenity. Wind farms are cheap but generate less power than solar farms which in turn generate less than coal-gobbling power stations - the drawback here being property-value-lowering fumes. Once built you can customize them further, adding extensions to improve storage and efficiency, and even signage for a visual spruce.

MAD MAXIS

Mega constructions like nuclear plants and water treatment centres are locked at first and offer incentive to expand. Enter: city halls. Acting as a bellwether to overall progress, surrounding buildings can only upgrade once you've added the necessary department. Again, checks and balances. Among others, the city hall tourist department enables new casinos, the safety department unlocks cleaner waste disposal, and the finance department opens up the ability to raise or lower tax according to class.

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There's the danger this could all sound rather dry, but SimCity's genius is incorporating what could have been tedious resource-juggling into joyous feedback loops, all of them hyper-detailed audio-visual treats. When you erect a power source, for instance, thick yellow lines connect each building to a massive circuit which lights up with a series of pinball-like chimes and clatters, rows of houses plonk down with heavy snaps after quick mouse drags, new parks and stadiums elicit loud cheers from houses and, rather uncouthly, murky brown waste rolls and sloshes its way beneath roads to runoffs.

What Maxis are calling data layers allow you to filter these overlays and brings an almost Google Doc level of clean but personable readability to your city, at once minimalist and packed with information. In one, green faces represent happiness, in another black buildings signify vacancy, and in another still a series of three dimensional real-time bar charts identity which buildings are bunged up with rubbish. It's easy to stay on top of things too - department icons illuminate when they need attention.

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